“It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him….
‘You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.’”
-John 13: 1-4, 13-17 (bolded words mine)
I think the words that flowed and burned and lit my fingers as I typed have all gone to obedience school and learned to sit and be quiet.
Maybe the gospel has made them still and silent with the rest of my soul. I blame the Holiday Season. Christmas was so peaceful with longing for the God who hides His glory in a baby, who takes tiny things and makes them bigger on the inside than the world can see on the outside. New Year’s Day offered us all a sausage of resolutions stuffed with unidentified motivations and abilities. What is it about January that makes us all so indomitable?
Easter is approaching, with its loud hallelujah shouts and palm branches waving. I want to shout it out and see Him ride in just for me. But the crowd is so hard to navigate.
Church culture scorns the people who only come on the high holy days. And there is a great deal to be said for gathering every week. The stability and challenge of living in community revolutionizes our lives for the Gospel. But I think our seasonal brothers and sisters feel something we Regular Attenders can miss. Walking through those church doors as a failure and an outcast changes the way you look at Jesus. Without their gold star attendance to save them, they are primed and pumped to feel desperate for Jesus. They know it’s not just another Sunday; it’s their Sunday.
We sit there together, the Regular Attenders and the Holiday Christians. We try not to be cynical or critical about each other, and it can be uncomfortable. But I wonder if we really see each other at all.
And this is what I wish would stick in all of our hearts: Church is really just a gathering of dirty feet.
A few weeks ago, our family went out on one of our church’s truck runs to feed the homeless of our city. We drove along the highway, stopping to pass out meal bags, warm clothes, and supplies. We stood on cold corners and talked with about a dozen different people who have failed by our culture’s standards. They live in tents and under bridges, fly signs at stoplights, and often have only one another to turn to for help.
One woman told me she was twelve when she started living on the streets. Her mom died and no one in her family wanted her- not even her dad. He’s old school, you know, she said. He said we should be able to make it on our own. She spent her youth running from group homes. Now she has a husband, a baby, and a roof to live underneath. They rarely have food, but she laughed when she told me that, like the challenges of poverty are all a delightful game of strategy.
There was a man I’ll call “Mike” who practically tackled my husband, Morgan, with a huge hug. They know each other. They both used to play baseball and have bonded over this fact in the past. Sometimes Matt tries to get Morgan to share a cigarette with him. This usually gets big laughs from everyone, since my husband is the pastor of our church. But this particular night, it was all just sort of sad. Matt’s buddy had died two days before, right there on a corner. He was letting the alcohol soothes his grief while it robbed his soul of hope.
Another man regaled my daughter with the story of an abandoned puppy he rescued one night from the middle of the road. They just left that puppy in a box in the middle of the highway. I heard it whimpering. My daughter ate it up. He was a puppy superhero! He told us how he had been off the streets for a while this year, living in a friend’s spare room. Then the manager of the apartment complex found out he used to be homeless and made him leave. He was back under the bridge again that night. My daughter asked him why he had to leave. They think we done something bad to end up out here. But a lot of us haven’t. Things just happened to us.
In all the stories I heard that night, I heard echoes of my own. My soul has often been alone and hungry, I have filled it with various poisons to chase away the ache, and my past has haunted my attempts to move on many times.
Our fear of failure masks our vulnerability. We run faster, work harder, get better because we are scared of the things that could just “happen to us”. But the worst thing that could happen is this: we might believe we’ve saved ourselves with our own good behavior, and forget how desperate we are, and that every Sunday is our Sunday.
The words may be gone. Our parents may have pushed us out on our own too soon. Alcohol may make it seem less painful to face our loss. Injustice may have nipped at our dignity. But God is right here, a baby in a manger and a man on a cross. He’s washing our filthy feet, and loving us to the end.
Even so, I feel a little lost without the words. They gave their space to the vague sense that I am failing and it won’t leave. Lots of people would shush those words the minute they left my mouth, and then they’d go home and feed their own fear of failure a hearty meal of self-criticism or over-achieving effort to keep it alive. We forget empathy so easily. In the lives of other people, we call fears ill-formed and make light of their sharp teeth and harrowing presence. But then we go home to our own fears, carrying them like precious cargo, like bombs that could detonate at any moment.
As we drove home from the truck run, I thought about all the conversations we had that night. In my thoughts, I added up the number of people who longed for a way off the streets, and then I counted the people who have embraced their circumstances as inevitable.
All together, they made up the whole wide world.
One woman’s joy hounded my own heart. After a lifetime of physical abuse, she has found a man who doesn’t hit her in a warm tent out in the woods. It isn’t an ideal life, but her gratitude was evident and her love for God inspiring. She smiled, showing off the new coat my friend Leah gave her. I don’t fly signs and do all that stuff. I just sit there under the bridge and read my Bible. I’m the Bible Lady, That’s what they call me.
We gave her food and friendship that night. She gave us hope and happy smiles. It was a good old fashioned foot washing.
Maybe God will send the words back to me. Maybe He won’t. If I could trade my words forever for the return of Matt’s hope, or food for all the hungry bellies, or cut up my words into slivers and pass them out so all the broken souls could know they belong somewhere, I would do that.
On Sunday mornings, you’ll find most of the people we meet on truck runs gathering in the lobby of our church. Most of them make their way into the service when the music begins. Some of them don’t. All of them are unwelcome in places we take for granted: grocery stores, parks, restaurants, coffee shops, movie theaters. Even if they have money, they won’t step into those places very often. It would be too painful.
But here on Sundays, they are welcome. We have a shower they can use. We have a coffee bar with a barista ready to make them anything they would like. We are people just like them, wearing our dirty feet as we run to God. We only belong here because God says our feet are dirty enough to be washed by Him, so we can belong to Him.We are the Church of the Dirty Feet. We are failures who have been found favorable enough to belong to Him, and to each other. We are the homeless who have been called holy in His sight. This Sunday is ours forever.